Saturday, January 22, 2022

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Author Ed Snyder by Frank Rausch

I am not the world’s biggest Washington Irving fan (even less so a John Irving fan), so his grave is not why I visited Sleepy Hollow Cemetery in Sleepy Hollow, New York back in 2018. Not being an Irving fan seems almost un-American to me. I guess this hit home when I was visiting his grave – every once in a while I just play tourist, and go for the celebs. I got my friend Frank to photograph me at Irving’s gravesite. 

Bench at gatehouse, Sleepy Hollow Cemetery

Irving (1783-1859) lived near Sleepy Hollow and was bewitched by the spookiness of the area. It helped stoke his imagination for writing such tales as the Legend of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winkle in the early 1800s. I read The Legend of Sleepy Hollow as an adult, and it was anticlimactic. Having grown up with this pervasive tale, there was no magic left in the words. I realize that at the time it was written, Irving created a Victorian gothic masterpiece. For me, Rip Van Winkle was a much more enjoyable tale – the game of ninepins in the dark Catskilll Mountains and falling asleep for twenty years to avoid the nuisances of everyday life. A goal as sought after, yet as unattainable, as a bottle of Pappy Van Winkle bourbon. 

Anyway, I stray from my topic. Which is one of the reasons you read this blog, right? I seldom pander to people’s expectations. Sleepy Hollow Cemetery is certainly worth the visit. The trip was mainly a reason to hang out with my buddy Frank, who had left Philly for Connecticut after he retired. Sleepy Hollow was a good halfway point to meet, and since we both photograph cemeteries, what better place? Frank had been there before, I had not.

Sleepy Hollow is bit north of New York City, near tiny Tarrytown, New York. Which is near White Plains. As I crossed the Tappan Zee Bridge from Nyack, New Jersey, I couldn’t get the great power pop Fountains of Wayne song, “Little Red Light,” out of my head:

“Sitting in traffic on the Tappan Zee

Fifty million people out in front of me

Trying to cross the water but it just might be a while

Rain's coming down I can't see a thing

Radio's broken so I'm whistling

New York to Nyack feels like a hundred miles ….”

It wasn’t raining when I made the trip from Philadelphia up New Jersey’s Garden State Parkway; rather, it was a crisp winter’s day (actually December 27, 2018 – thank you metadata). Being a Thursday, I did hit all the wonderful rush hour traffic – which was not without its charms. I got a slo-mo view of a car fire near the Bronx exit, serendipitously playing out as James Brown’s “Hot Pants” blasted from my car stereo. (By the way, I only recently found out that cars don’t explode when they catch fire -That only happens in the movies. I am so impressionable.)

Pulling into small-town Tarrytown is quite a culture shift from the hectic highway driving. The Palisades and the woods are breathtakingly beautiful – and quiet. You quickly realize how the creepiness of the area got to Irving, and sparked his imagination. I’ve only been in a few areas of the country where I got such a creepy vibe, one being the Brandywine River battle grounds in Pennsylvania, famed for George Washington’s lost Revolutionary War battles. You drive along that little river through the woods, and you can feel the ghosts of all the dead soldiers in the morning mist rising off the water. There were Revolutionary War battles fought in the White Plains area as well.

The Old Dutch Church, Sleepy Hollow, New York

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has the same vibe. It’s quiet, its Gothic, and I’m sure it is creepy any time of year. While the cemetery itself was established in the Victorian era (1849), it is situated near the small graveyard of the Old Dutch Church (established in 1660), the final scene of Irving’s Headless Horseman tale. I can’t picture local Victorian era residents picnicking in either of these places. They just seem too dark. The whole place reminded me somewhat of Georgetown’s Oak Hill Cemetery, wet, scary, not very welcoming. Which of course makes them great places to visit around Halloween.

Helmsley Mausoleum

Sleepy Hollow Cemetery has got it all – size (90 acres), angel statuary, and hidden gems like Leona Helmsley and Andrew Carnegie’s graves - Helmsley’s memorial is bigger, in case you’re wondering! (Did you know that Helmsley left $13 million to her dog when she died in 2007?!)  Leona and husband Harry Helmsley owned the largest real estate holding company in the United States, and their huge mausoleum is quite extravagant. Large stained glass windows depicting the New York City skyline are astounding. This other stained glass window in another mausoleum was quite unique – probably a portrait of the deceased above his crypt.

Sleepy Hollow’s landscaping disorients even the most experienced gravewalker. Rolling hills, bridges and streams, graves under a dark canopy of trees – you can just get lost in the place. I’m not sure what a “cheerful” mausoleum looks like, but most of the mausoleums here are, while stately, are rather grim and foreboding. I don’t think I’ve ever been as surprised by the varied and imaginative DOOR HANDLES as I was on the mausoleums at Sleepy Hollow. The hourglass door handle is near Washington Irving’s grave, which is marked with a simple headstone. The creepiness of this specific plot was not lost on me. It’s all very quiet – almost too quiet. Even with remnants of Christmas decorations, it is gothic and dark here. It is not joyous. 

If you are into celebrity graves, Sleepy Hollow is jam packed with them. Washington Irving gets all the press, but there is something for everyone here, people who are much more famous – American labor leader Samuel Gompers, automobile magnate Walter Chrysler, Standard Oil Company founder William Rockefeller, Elizabeth Arden of the famed cosmetics company, IBM pioneer Thomas J. Watson, and so on.

See more famous interments on the Sleepy Hollow Cemetery website:

Frank shooting an angel

This marvel of a cemetery must be enjoyed while walking (or kneeling, as my friend Frank shows us here). It is one of the few places I’ve been that is so dense with amazing architecture, art, sculpture, and history, that you simply can’t appreciate it by driving along its sinuous roads. It is full of Victorian quirkiness, like iron fencing and gates with cast angels; there are assorted zinc monuments, bronze and marble sculptures, huge monuments, and unique mausoleum stained glass. The fencing is unusual both in style and quantity. Decades after the Victorian era, people felt that the iron plot fencing and decorative gates were rather gauche – so much ironwork around the U.S. was removed and destroyed. 

Not so at Sleepy Hollow. Maybe people were too scared of this place to trash the decorative ironwork. Walking through this wonderful chunk of history, you almost expect to find a shadowy figure crumpled at the foot of a monument, as did the protagonist in Irving’s Adventure of the German Student. “A beautiful young woman in black, slumped over with her tangled black hair falling over her face.” After taking her home with him, he awakens the next morning to find her dead. Decapitated, in fact, having been guillotined the day before he met her.

Additional Reading: